Born in a Shtetl

An Essay on Sonia Delaunay and her Jewishness

by Tom Sandqvist (Author)
©2016 Monographs 164 Pages


Sonia Delaunay is one of the most important artists of the early twentieth century, whose contribution to European Modernism was fundamental, if not always fully acknowledged in its own right. She is known for translating her experiments via painting into the realm of fashion, interior design and crafts and, thus, consciously transcending the boundaries between fine and applied art. The focus within mainstream art history has been her relationship with her husband Robert Delaunay. Tom Sandqvist shifts this focus on her Jewish roots and sheds a light on the influence of growing up in the typical Eastern European shtetl, which has not attracted any special attention in the analysis of Delaunay’s art. Tom Sandqvist reflects on the impact of Judaism on Sonia Delaunay’s œuvre, with a special focus on her early contributions to Simultanism and Orphism within the interwar Parisian Avant-Garde.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • The Dadaist Inspired by Sonia Delaunay
  • In the Shtetl, in the Vast Crowd of Russia, and on the Karelian Isthmus
  • On Her Dress She Has a Body
  • From Hradyzk To the Capital of the Empire
  • The Jewish Elite Close To the Emperor
  • The Jewish Origin
  • First Karlsruhe, Then Paris
  • Wilhelm Uhde and Robert Delaunay
  • Emerging Simultanism
  • On the Trans-Siberian Railroad
  • Back To Hradyzk, Back To Mogilev
  • In Portugal and Spain
  • Simultanism and the Dissolved Hierarchies
  • Image and Letter
  • Bibliography
  • Index


Sonia Delaunay (1885–1979) is one of the most important artists of the early twentieth century, whose contribution to European Modernism was fundamental, if not always fully acknowledged. Ukrainian-born, she moved to Paris in 1905, and shifting her interest to abstraction, participating in the Parisian Avant-Garde circles together with artists and poets such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars she celebrated the modern world and urban life, exploring the world of colors together with her husband Robert Delaunay. After spending time in Spain and Portugal during World War I, she translated her experiments in painting into the realm of fashion, interior design and crafts, thus consciously transcending the boundaries between fine art and applied art.

Mainstream art history has claimed that Robert Delaunay was the primus motor behind her simultaneous painting and fashion, pushing her contribution into the background, even oblivion. Like the fact that Sonia Delaunay was born and grew up in a Jewish family in the “typical” Eastern European shtetl of Hradyzk outside Kiev in the heart of the Russian Jewish Pale of Settlement, also the fact that she then was adopted by a Jewish upper-class family in Saint Petersburg, the capital of the Russian Empire, spending the summers on the Finnish Karelian Isthmus, has not generally attracted any special attention, although it is obvious that the ideohistorical “roots” of her art must be found precisely in this and not so much in her relationship with her husband, as claimed.

This is an essay about Sonia Delaunay, an essay telling of a Jewish artist, a Jewess born in an Ukrainian shtetl who then spent most of her adolescent life in Saint Petersburg before leaving Russia for Germany and France: a story seldom told, but many times experienced. This is also a story of misogyny as well as a story of misleading historiography. Faithful to the literal meaning of the term scientific essay as being “a literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytic, speculative, or interpretative”, this book puts to the test the thought that Eastern European shtetl culture must be one of the most disrespected foundations of Sonia Delaunay’s art.

The Jewish element in the Central and Eastern European context around the turn of the last century was undoubtedly the single most powerful contribution to Modernism,1 moreover binding together the different national cultures in an almost pan-European network of impulses and influences, this being a generally ← 9 | 10 → recognized and self-evident fact in many respects, however, a fact which had only a minor impact on historiography. The fear of touching these issues after the collapse of the Eastern Jewish culture in the Holocaust still seems to restrain the historians, if it is not simply about such a “trivial” matter as structural anti-Semitism still characterizing this discoursive uninterest. Especially among art historians this silence has become as painfully rumbling as unexplainable, especially bearing in mind the endless steppe of uncharted territories ready for intensified research efforts, waiting in all those countries far away that once ended up on the “wrong” side of the Iron Curtain, including Russia.

And precisely this – the flagrant exclusion of the Jewish contributions taken together in the region – seems to be brought to the fore even more often compared to the national level respectively at that precise moment when the art historians focus explicitly on Central and Eastern Europe as a whole. Significant enough is, for instance, the ambitious catalog central european avant-gardes: exchange and transformation, 1910–1930, edited by the American art historian Timothy O. Benson2 and published in connection with a big exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2002, an exhibition entirely concentrating on the different vanguard currents of the region during the first decades of the 20th century, which also was presented later in both Munich and Hamburg. Of the total of 440 pages of text “Jewish art” is discussed only on nine pages, at the same time the American art historian Steven A. Mansbach, for instance, refers to the Jewish contributions on only a few dozen of over 300 pages in his magisterial Modern Art in Eastern Europe: from the Baltic to the Balkans, published in 19993; only one and a half page is dedicated to the Polish, explicitly Jewish artists’ group Jung Jidysz, which is, moreover, directly connected to German Expressionism.

Does our cultural self-understanding really contain such a big blind spot? Honestly, have we really missed to measure the impact of a tradition of thoughts of which we are generally unaware of? For instance, we recognize that Modernism was not only a revolt against traditional 19th century Academism, but that it introduced a special approach of its own as well; but aren’t the ideohistorical roots of this attitude wrapped in mystery? Not to mention precisely that pitch-black darkness which both, the media’s headline-grabbing interest as well as the occasionally intense focusing of academic research on gender political implications, boast of trying to dispel. ← 10 | 11 →

In his widely discussed essay about “a hijacked West” published in 19834, the Czech writer Milan Kundera tries to define the concept of Central Europe as being connected to the historical Habsburg monarchy, the multinational empire in the very heart of the continent of Europe, which existed almost uninterrupted from the beginning of the 16th century up until the breakdown during the Great War. Despite its weakness, Central Europe became a great cultural center at the beginning of the 20th century, Kundera states. According to him, the originality that characterized the capital of the empire was unthinkable without the background of the other countries beyond Austria and Vienna, as these substantially contributed with their own creativity to Central European culture as a whole. If Arnold Schönberg developed the dodecaphonic, or “twelve-tone” compositional method, then it was the Hungarian Béla Bartók who found the last authentic possibility for a music based on the tonal principle. With the works of Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hašek, Prague created a great counterpart in literature to the works of the Viennese Robert Musil and Hermann Broch. The cultural dynamics of the non-German countries was additionally intensified during the decades following 1918 as Prague contributed with its linguistic circle and structuralist theories.

Could this great creative bursting have been a mere geographical coincidence? Kundera asks himself, joining those who refuse to nail down the geographical boundaries of Central European culture, on the ground that Central Europe is not a state but a culture or rather a condition defined by every specific historical situation. Then, is there a common denominator when it comes to all these cultural differences, discourses and transgressions throughout the centuries? Indeed, Kunderas says. Sigmund Freud’s parents came from Poland, but it was in Moravia where he spent his childhood, like Edmund Husserl and Gustav Mahler. The Viennese writer Joseph Roth too was rooted in Poland, while, for instance, the poet Julius Zeyer was born in Prague in a German-speaking family, although he himself chose to write in Czech. Inversely, Hermann Kafka’s mother tongue was Czech while his son Franz Kafka turned to German. Likewise, Milan Kundera might have pointed at such writers and artists as Franz Werfel, Rainer Maria Rilke, György Lukács, El Lissitzky, László Moholy-Nagy, Naum Gabo, Antoine Pevsner, Chaïm Soutine, Jacques Lipchitz and Henryk Berlewi, to mention only a few, when exclaiming: “what a confusion of national conditions and destinations with the most representative personalities?” Indeed, what tied these prominent figures together was their common anchorage to Jewish culture – No part of the world has ever been as deeply characterized by precisely the “Jewish genius” as ← 11 | 12 → Central and Eastern Europe; by these strangers, everywhere equally at home as anywhere else, raised above national struggles the most important cosmopolitan and integrating element of Central Europe, a “condensation of its spirit”, “creator of its spiritual unity”. In the Jews, the destiny of Central Europe seems to be concentrated, finding its symbolical image in them. Thus, Kundera defines the Jews as the constant trait of the Central European intellectual landscape up until the disaster of World War II, at the same time its most obvious and most integrative element. The history of Central and Eastern Europe cannot be understood without references to the Jewish experience. And, moreover, almost nothing of European Modernism either, neither in the arts, literature, music, nor the sciences. And didn’t Joseph Roth already explain that the Jews were “the single legitime representatives of European culture”?

This circumstance is getting even more interesting if we pay attention to the Western parts of Russia, that is, mainly the geographic area generally called the Russian Jewish Pale of Settlement from the Baltic to the Black Sea, remaining as such until the February Revolution of 1917, when the system was officially abolished by the provisional government decree. Namely, it gets particularly interesting as we consider the area culture as geographically being a part of the same Central European context Milan Kundera tries to describe. Indeed, it was hardly no coincidence that so many, if not the majority, of all the leading artists and other intellectuals within Modernism were born and grew up in Jewish families in precisely this area, an area appearing as the semi-permeable membrane through which the osmosis of the different cultural impulses in both directions was possible. In fact, much of Modernism, derives from this area of Jewish struggle and thought.

Yes indeed, this is an essay focusing on Sonia Delaunay, according to the digital encyclopedia, the “Ukrainian-born French artist, who spent most of her working life in Paris and, with her husband Robert Delaunay and others, cofounded the Orphism art movement, noted for its use of strong colors and geometric shapes.” Like in most of our textbooks, Sonia Delaunay is first of all made the wife of a much more important artist than herself, at the same time her birth and upbringing are more or less totally neglected as irrelevant, creating the impression that her art emerged out of a context totally dominated by aspects independent of herself; her biographical and cultural background are defined indirectly as if they were without any significance for her “French” art of colorful joy and esprit de finesse. Bearing in mind the implications of the assumption that the Pale of Settlement, that is, in the case of Sonia Delaunay the place of her birth and where she grew up in a Jewish upper-class family in Saint Petersburg, might be considered part of the same cultural context as Milan Kundera’s Central Europe, consequently, this ← 12 | 13 → study is then, so to speak, an attempt to direct the flashlight of curiosity towards the darkness of ignorance – and misogyny – regarding Sonia Delaunay and her special backgrounds. Shortly, this essay tries to shed light on the Ukrainian-born Jewish artist deeply rooted in the Eastern Jewish shtetl culture and its special values and ontological circumstances.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (May)
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 164 S., 37 s/w Abb.

Biographical notes

Tom Sandqvist (Author)

The author is Professor in Theory of Art and Art History at the University of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm and Associate Professor in Art History at the University of Lapland, Rovaniemi. He has published numerous studies regarding art at the turn of the century with a special focus on Dadaism and Eastern European Modernism.


Title: Born in a Shtetl